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Are Biotech Foods Safe to Eat?

Most Americans have eaten genetically modified foods without knowing it, but are they safe?

Is Regulation Too Soft? continued...

Regulation for genetically modified foods falls under three jurisdictions: The FDA, EPA, and USDA. But industry experts say the green light on market approval is left mostly to the companies creating the technology. Monsanto Co. dominates the industry, accounting for a 90% share of genetically modified crops worldwide. Dow Chemical Company and Syngenta AG, among others, control the rest.

Despite differing opinions on genetically modified food safety, most experts agree on one point: The regulation system is flawed.

"Clearly I think the regulation system in the U.S. could be greatly improved," says Gregory Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit, public advocacy group that supports the use of this biotechnology. But he says a CSPI study released in January 2003 showed that biotech companies don't always voluntarily comply with federal requirements.

"They did not do state-of-the-art tests when they needed to do those. In some instances they had errors in their submissions, and the agency did not do a thorough review of those. Our view is that there should be a mandatory, premarket approval process by the FDA before biotech foods go on the market; that the public is entitled to have the FDA determining that the food is safe and not relying on [companies such as] Monsanto telling us the food is safe."

The FDA litmus test for genetically modified food safety is based on a policy that states genetically modified foods are substantially equivalent to non-modified foods.

"No serious scientist in the world would stand behind that unless they're on the payroll of the biotech companies. If they're substantially equivalent, why do these companies have a patent on them?" says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association and author of the book, Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers. "You can summarize it in three words: [Genetically modified foods] are unpredictable, they are untested, and they are unlabeled."

Monsanto states that genetically modified foods are "more thoroughly tested than any other food on the grocer's shelves to date" and "there have been no adverse effects documented from food produced from biotech crops." Among industry supporters of this technology are heavy hitters such as the American Medical Association.

Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe?

Jaffe agrees that overall, the current genetically modified crops -- which he says are generally one-gene additions -- are safe. He says no food is 100% safe -- genetically modified or not -- and the odds of having an adverse reaction to a genetically modified food are slim. "Even though we've done all of the tests and everything else, one might say, 'Yes, there is still some risk and we don't know the long-term effects.' That's true, but we have enough knowledge about the protein and where it's been introduced, how we've been exposed to it in our food supply in other ways without danger, to have confidence that this is a safe food now."

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